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Yisrael Kristal: 1903 - 2017

Tribute to the memory of Yisrael Kristal


Story by Sandrine Cohen & Nissim Sellam

I went to meet the oldest man on earth and it was a part of myself that I found.
When I first learned that the oldest man in the world, Yisrael Kristal, was a Holocaust survivor and that he was living in Haifa, I knew that I needed to meet him. It was absolutely necessary. It wasn׳t just to see ״The oldest man״ as in visiting a museum, not at all. The sensational, almost voyeuristic side did not interest me. To talk to him, to meet the witness that he is, to discuss with him the question that has been haunting me: the Jewish faith and identity after Auschwitz. I didn׳t know it then, but this idea of him being the oldest of the human race, that he was alive before anyone who is living today, had awakened my soul. Also, his first name, which wasn׳t only a name, but the name that identified all my people, Yisrael, somehow left a mark on my unconscious.
Obviously, I had to take a picture of him as this is what I and my partner, Sandrine Cohen, do : Photograph the witnesses that we meet in order to capture something from their personal aura and then publish it for a project that is close to my heart: The Last Link.
How can one set up a such a vital meeting? I found a lead in a newspaper article, got helped by a journalist friend who deciphered the contact number, Shula׳s, Yisrael Kristal׳s daughter who warned me, ״Be careful, he doesn׳t like journalists״. I understood, but I most certainly am not a journalist. To put the odds on my side, I asked Dana, who is active in associations for Holocaust survivors to intervene in my favor. Several days later, after a grueling conversation on the difference between my project and those that were seeking financial gain and who only wanted a nice picture to sell, Shula finally accepted my request to meet her father. It was set for Monday 11am. I hardly slept and woke up at dawn to wait for the final confirmation. At 8:45am: ״Nissim, hit the road ; you׳re expected in Haifa.״

Taxi, conversations, fear: What will I say to him? I have the feeling that this meeting will be different. I was far from imagining the wonderful events that awaited me.
When I finally got there a modest building met me. I climbed to the first floor and saw ״Yisrael Kristal״ written on the door. As she opened the door, the Asian nursemaid said to me in a singing accent ״You are lucky!״ I enter unsteadily and see them both. Shula and Yisrael. The daughter and the father. She is standing beside his chair. She has tefillin in her hands. Those small boxes that Jewish men must put on their forehead and arm each morning to connect with God. Shula didn׳t greet me in any way, just looked up and told me ״Since dad got tangled in the straps I try to put them on him every day, unfortunately, I׳m not quite sure how to do this.״ I offer to help as I learned to do this at an early age and I still do it every morning, even though I׳m less religious now. I suggest that it would be wonderful to take a picture of him wearing the tefillin and Shula agrees.

I took the tefillin and placed the boxes containing the scroll on the forehead of the oldest man alive, then I tied the straps on the arm of the oldest holocaust survivor alive. These boxes of remembrance are right now on a living memory, and I feel how an intense emotion envelops me, something comparable to the expression of my soul, a moment suspended in time. I think that Shula felt my emotion. As I lifted my eyes towards her, I saw she is on the verge of tears. It was if I understood, for the first time, what it meant for a Jew to wear tefillin. I have worn it since my 13th birthday when I was at the Yeshiva. When I left the Yeshiva to become a publicist, I kept on doing this day after day. But until that very moment, I had not understood. I cannot express it any other way, this profound feeling that enveloped me at that moment.
Yisrael, in spite of his poor eyesight, played with me at having his picture taken. He laughs and doesn׳t say much. What he does have to say, he says in Yiddish to Shula and she translates for me the words of he who׳s been around longer than anyone else.

״You see, I don׳t know you but you are very lucky.״ Shula says, ״I never let anyone enter this house. Journalists don׳t care about my father. They weren׳t interested in him nor his past until the Guinness Book of Records story surfaced. What they were looking for was a scoop and that doesn׳t interest me. Why are they doing this? The last time one came here was two years ago. He took pictures of my father but never published them until the week that he became a record. Then she added: ״But when Dana explained your project and the true intentions of telling the story of the survivors, I made a huge effort and made the decision to let you come here even though I didn׳t know you.״ I told her: ״ I׳m not a journalist, that׳s the truth, but I still have questions. There is one that I ask every survivor I meet. Now, it seems almost ridiculous after seeing your father wearing the tefillin.״ ״What is your question?״ asked Shula.
״Yisrael, after all that you have seen, after all that you have experienced, do you believe in God ?״
Our conversation got interrupted by the nursemaid who served him tea. Yisrael thanks her and then points to me, before he even got a chance to say ״For him too, one tea״ she had already given a cup. Yisrael says the blessing over his tea: ״Blessed art Thou, Lord of our God, King of the Universe, by whose word all things come into being.״ I answer ״Amen!״ and say my blessing. We toast as the Jews toast: ״Lehaim! To life!״
To life. The oldest man on earth toasts to life, after the horror. It is so beautiful that I feel my chest tighten. He says to his daughter in Yiddish, who translates for me : ״What is more fascinating than being 112 years old and still being able to say the blessing over a cup of tea ?״ Here is my answer to the theological question. He is happy to be alive and to practice the Jewish rituals. He is happy to be able to still do what Jews have done before him. He has no theoretical position on the obligation to believe or not. He says nothing of those who have lost faith, he does not judge them. He is happy to simply drink his tea and to bless God beforehand.
Before I left, I asked one last question: ״What would be your message to future generations?״ He answered in Yiddish: ״To behave like humans״
I went to meet the oldest man on earth and it was a part of myself that I found.

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